West Papuans face an existential threat as PNG and Indonesia announce defence cooperation agreement

December 16, 2022
Protesting 50 years of Indonesian occupation of West Papua on May 1, 2013. Image: freewestpapua.org

They are part of us and we are part of them”, declared Augustine Rapa, politician, founder and president of the Papua New Guinea (PNG) Liberal Democratic Party, at the celebration of the 61st anniversary of West Papua’s struggle for independence held in the Port Moresby suburb of Gerehu, on December 1.

Rapa was responding to PNG police who arrived at the celebration and attempted to prevent Papuans — from the other side of the colonial border — commemorating this significant national day.

According to Rapa, West Papua’s plight should be at the top of PNG’s agenda. He also urged PNG foreign affairs minister, Justin Tkatchenko, to take West Papuans' plight to the United Nations.

Frank Makanuey, a senior West Papuan representative present at the event, also appealed to the PNG government to alter its foreign policy and law so that Papuans from the other side of the border can continue to be free to express their opinions peacefully, akin to the opinions and rights inscribed in the UN’s charter for Indigenous peoples.

Makanuey said West Papuans living in PNG will continue to fight for their freedom for as long as they live, and when they die will pass the torch of resistance on to their children.

On the day of the commemoration, Tkatchenko appeared in a short video interview echoing Rapa’s sentiments. “These West Papuans are part of our family; part of our members and are part of Papua New Guinea. They are not strangers.

“We are separated only by imaginary lines, which is why I am here.

“I did not come here to fight, to yell, to scream, to dictate, but to reach a common understanding — to respect the law of Papua New Guinea and the sovereignty of Indonesia.”

The minister then explained how West Papuans in PNG should be accommodated under PNG's immigration law through an appropriate route.

A few days later, ahead of the Indonesia-Pacific Forum for Development (IPFD) held in Bali, on December 6, Tkatchenko attended bilateral meetings with Timor Leste, PNG and Vanuatu as well as with the Director General of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG).

Following a meeting with Indonesian foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, Tkatchenko said: “As Papua New Guineans, we must support and respect Indonesia's sovereignty.” He added that PNG would work with Indonesia to resolve any issues that arise with West Papuans living in the country.

Defence cooperation agreement

One of the most critical and concerning outcomes of his visit was the announcement of a defence cooperation agreement between PNG and Indonesia. “We will work harder and partner on a common goal to achieve security along both countries' borders,” Tkatchenko said.

A meeting at the state intelligence agency office in Jakarta, in January, intended to silence all Melanesian leaders who support West Papua's independence and bring them under Jakarta’s sphere of influence — with an allocation of roughly Rp450 billion (approximately A$42,500,000).

PNG’s Prime Minister James Marape led a large delegation to Indonesia, at the invitation of President Joko Widodo, for bilateral discussions a couple of months later, on March 30. Forestry, fisheries, energy, Kumul corporations and the Investment Promotion Authority were among the key sectors represented in the delegation.

Considering the large sum (reportedly K5 million/A$2 million) spent on a 24-hour visit (and its timing in the run up to the PNG election), this must have been a significant expedition with a considerable agenda.

According to PNG Today, the purpose of the meeting was for both leaders to be able to hold dialogue meetings, and where Marape was expected to propose a tripartite arrangement between PNG, Indonesia and Australia, regarding “mutual security, border protection, trade and others (sic)”.

The lack of detail available on the defence cooperation agreement raises many questions for ordinary Papuans on both sides of the border — those that the foreign minister described as being separated by “imaginary lines”.

Could the proposed defence agreement remove these imaginary lines, or will it strengthen them to become real and solid lines that would further divide and eliminate Papuans from the border region?

Marape grew up in the interior Papuan region of Tari, and is of the proud Huli nation, which shares ancient kinship with other original nations such as Yali, Kimyal, Hubula, Dani and Lani to the side of the border. As a custodian of this region, the PM may have witnessed some of the most devastating, unreported humanitarian crises instigated by ruthless Indonesian military in this area, in the name of sovereignty and border protection.

Why does his government in Moresby boast about signing a defence agreement with Jakarta? Is this a death wish agreement for Papuans — his people and ancestral land, especially on the border region?

Which entity poses an existential threat to Papuans? Is it China, Australia, Indonesia, or the Papuans themselves?

It has also been reported that Marape has invited President Widodo to visit PNG.

There is nothing unusual or uncommon about countries and nations making bilateral or multilateral agreements on any matter concerning their survival, no matter their intentions, especially when you share a direct border like Indonesia and PNG, which has been stained by decades of protracted war waged against Papuans.

But why discuss a defence agreement now, after all these years?

What are the objectives of this initiative? Is it to serve the imperial agenda of Beijing, the United States, Jakarta, or is it to safeguard and protect the island of New Guinea? What is the purpose of a defence agreement, who is protected and from whom?

Power shifts

Just like the past 500 years, when European vultures circled the island of New Guinea and sliced it up into pieces, new vultures are now encroaching upon us as the global hegemonic power structure shifts from West to East.

Responding to these developments, Marape warned that his country would not be caught up in a geopolitical standoff with the US, Australia or China, warning the global powers to “keep your fights to yourselves”.

But does the PM have a choice in this matter? Does he have the power to stop war if or when it breaks out in the Pacific?

When did Papuans from both sides of this imaginary line have the power to say no to all kinds of brutal, exploitative behaviour exhibited by foreign powers over the past 500 years? Up to the first and second World Wars, to Pacific nuclear testing, and to foreign international bandits currently exploiting New Guinea's natural resources?

Since its independence, when has the PNG government been able to halt the brutality and onslaught of the Indonesians against their own people on the other side of these imaginary lines?

Why does the foreign affairs minister sit in Jakarta, negotiating a defence deal with an entity that threatens to annihilate West Papuans, after he himself conveyed a heartfelt message to them on December 1?

Can the PM and the foreign affairs minister avoid being caught in the middle of a looming war as the Pacific becomes yet another gift for strategic war space between the Imperial West and the East?

Benny Wenda, an international icon for the liberation of West Papua, said on his official Facebook page in response to the defence agreement: “Let's not make this happen, please, our PNG brothers and sisters open your eyes! Can't you see they're trying to take over our ancestors’ land.”

While the PNG government gambles on West Papua's fate with Jakarta, West Papuans are marginalised, chased, or hunted by establishing unlawful settler colonial administrative divisions across the heartland of New Guinea and direct military operations.

As Wenda warned in his latest report, “mass displacements are occurring in every corner of West Papua”.

Existential threat

Whatever the philosophical approach underlying PNG’s foreign policies in relation to West Papua’s fate — realist or idealist, traditional or transcendental — what matters most to West Papuans is whether they will survive under Indonesian settler colonialism over the next 20 years.

Papuans face a serious existential threat under Indonesia settler colonial rule, and the PNG government must be very careful in its dealings with Jakarta. Every single visit and action taken by both PNG and Indonesia will leave a permanent mark on the wounded soul of West Papua. The only question is, will these actions destroy Papuans or rescue them?

West Papua is bleeding. The last thing West Papua needs is for the PNG governmental apparatus and forces to harass and chase them as they seek refuge under its roof. PNG is not the enemy of West Papua; the enemy of PNG is not West Papua.

The enemies are those who divide the island into pieces, exploit its resources and sign defence agreements to further solidify imaginary lines, while leaving its original custodians of the land stranded on the streets and slums like beggars.

Papuans have lived in this ancient and timeless land from Sorong to Samarai for thousands of years. The actions we take today will determine whether the descendants of these archaic autochthons will survive in the years to come.

[Yamin Kogoya is a West Papuan academic who has a Master of Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development from the Australian National University. He is from the Lani tribe in the Papuan Highlands, and lives in Brisbane. This is an abridged and edited version of a longer article that first appeared on Asia-Pacific Report.]

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